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Best Practice 9 September Sep 2020 0830 9 September 2020

Social distancing, health and safety protocols and a splash of creativity: the solutions to reopen Italian schools

Some have introduced shifts and alternating attendance schedules, others will hold lessons at the museum: Italian schools have found a wide variety of ways to start the school year safely. Though many doubts remain

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After months of closure and distance learning due to the health crisis, Italian schools are at last getting ready to reopen. The Ministry of Education has established September 14th as the crucial date, despite a rising infection rate in recent weeks.

Over the past few months, schools have been securing as much additional space as possible and increasing staff numbers so that class sizes can be reduced, and social distancing enforced. Through a series of decrees and protocols, the Ministry of Education has put a series of measures in place and made the necessary funds available for schools to deal with organisational as well as health and safety requirements. The most pressing issue is that Italian schools are so different in terms of their size and location, which makes it difficult to introduce one-size-fits-all solutions.

Schools in Italy have a high degree of autonomy and as a result, the Ministry has left it up to head teachers to make many of their own arrangements for reopening. This was a controversial decision that left many questions unanswered. After taking on board the Ministry’s general indications, some schools have set to work with many finding imaginative ideas to get children back to the classroom safely.

Some schools could not come to terms with their pupils staying at home: in Milan, the head of the Bodio-Guiccardi school allowed a class of students in their last year of middle school to finish making a short film as part of their final project, which they’d started before lockdown – a brave decision but the children were overjoyed. “It was not easy to organise but it was really important to them and the pupils themselves urged us to make it happen,” the headteacher told the Italian daily Il Giorno. “It was not a reckless move on my part, I was well aware that there were significant limits, but I thought we should do it because in September the children would have moved on to their new schools. The experience made me feel more confident about reopening in September.”

Even during the lockdown some schools went above and beyond to help deal with the emergency. One such example is the Enzo Ferrari Institute in Susa (near Turin) where the science lab was used to produce hand sanitiser as the local authority and Red Cross had suddenly run out of supplies in March and April. “We made a first trial bottle which we sent to the local health authority lab for testing and our laboratory technician then started up full-scale production,” the school’s head Anna Giaccone told La Stampa newspaper. The mayor then sourced more raw material so that production could continue, and by April 180 litres had been produced for the local Red Cross, hospitals and care homes. Other institutes in Palermo and Gorizia also followed suit.

The Steiner school in Milan found a novel way to solve the desk problem: over two weeks, teachers and parents assembled, sanded and painted 200 brand new pinewood desks

For schools to reopen, keeping all areas disinfected and the use of masks both play a fundamental role. But there are many more aspects requiring the involvement of local authorities and the volunteer organisations entrusted with renovation work, finding additional teaching spaces and extra staff. To reach this goal, the Ministry has earmarked 300 million euro for small-scale building work and 70 million for schools to rent additional space. There have, however, been some delays: according to some estimates, 20,000 new classrooms are required but by the beginning of August, only half this number had been found.

As a general rule, desks must be 1.5 metres apart and each student must have a single-seat desk, perhaps even with wheels if the head teacher so decides. In July, Italy’s Commissioner for the emergency, Domenico Arcuri, announced an international tender for the production of 2.5 million new desks. Though there was much debate around just how feasible this request was in the given timescale, the first desks have started to arrive and the whole consignment should be ready between September and October.

In the meantime, the Steiner school in Milan sourced its own desks: over two weeks, teachers and parents assembled, sanded and painted 200 brand new pinewood desks so the school could reopen safely. “Building the desks with the mothers and fathers of our pupils was not just about getting the wood and sanding it down, we wanted to show the children that we cared. As adults we can set an example of how we can make the world a better place,” woodwork teacher Tiziana Zoncada told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

One of the most significant measures to get schools open again is the use of face masks, though there is still no final consensus on this point. The Education Ministry has purchased 11 million masks to be distributed daily to teachers and other staff members.

The protocols require facilities to be regularly sanitised using specific products, which will be done by auxiliary staff. The Ministry has purchased 170,000 litres of sanitiser gel to be distributed to schools on a weekly basis. The distance required between desks means that classes will be split and, to also ensure regular cleaning, this means more staff will be needed: the Ministry has authorised the hiring of 80,000 teachers and teaching assistants, though their jobs would not be safe if a further lockdown were to be imposed.

At the Bottoni scientific high school in Milan, retired teachers will return to the classroom

The Bottoni scientific high school in Milan has boosted its ranks by bringing retired teachers back to the classroom: the teaching staff will be supported by former teachers who belong to the volunteer organisation “Non Uno di Meno” (not one less), who have been running afternoon courses to help keep children in education.

The school has decided against remote learning, preferring instead to use all available spaces so that children can return to school – science labs, corridors and even tents will become classrooms. With the need to reduce class sizes, the retired teachers will hold lessons in tandem with the teaching staff. “I’m really pleased though this is not the first time I’ve taught this age group, having already taught in a vocational college. I’m convinced that this kind of project is the way forward, because distance learning can only do so much and at this age, it’s important for youngsters to socialise,” former English teacher and one of 100 members of the association supporting other schools in Milan, Patrizia Astorri, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

At the Volta scientific high school they have introduced staggered entry times, shifts and alternating attendance schedules whereby four pupils in each class will take it in turns to stay at home. “We have 1,200 students. After we had measured the classrooms and made all our calculations, we were missing space for 200 students,” explained headteacher Domenico Squillace. “Each student will stay at home for one day every two or three weeks and will be doing work set by their teachers. There was no other way as we have large classes with an average of 28 students, and not all our classrooms are big enough to enforce social distancing. Moving classes to other locations was too complicated as we also do not have enough staff.”

Additionally, the Volta has asked local churches to allow them to use their football pitches for sports lessons, the school will also use parks and has approached the organisation MilanoSport to organise swimming lessons for small groups at a local pool. “We are finding various solutions so that we can bring as many students as possible back to school,” the headteacher added.

Even schools in smaller towns are finding innovative solutions: one such example are the schools in San Miniato, where 130,000 euro have been spent on small-scale building work, and lunch will be eaten at desks so that the school canteen can be used for lessons. At one of the area’s primary schools, lessons will be held in the San Genesio archaeological museum – which will give lessons a workshop format as well as making them safe, in the words of Giulia Profeti, councillor for local schools. In Lanciano, in the central Italian province of Chieti, lessons will also be held outdoors: some classes will go to the Music Park while 90 infant school children will be taught at the local recreation centre. In Arezzo they are considering assigning a park to each school for open-air lessons “based on Aristotle’s model”.

At the end of the day, Italian schools are finding a wide variety of solutions for the new term ahead. Although there are still some loose ends – the experts believe that reopening schools will be an important stress test on the infection rate – what is not missing is enthusiasm and a strong will to get started again.

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